Things Japanese/Wood Engraving
Wood Engraving. A far-off Chinese origin followed by centuries in the chrysalis stage, a wakening from torpor soon after A.D. 1600 when peace had replaced continual civil tumults, then a gradual working up to perfection, a golden age from, say, 1730 to 1830, after which sudden decline and death,—such we have seen to be the life-history of many Japanese arts, such is the life-history of the lovely art of wood engraving.
In a country where printing is done, not with movable types, but from wooden blocks, and where consequently the same process would naturally serve for both letterpress and pictorial illustration, we may assume that if the former of these exists, the latter probably exists along with it. Now we know block-printing to have been practised in Japan in the eighth century, if not sooner. There is, therefore, no reason for discrediting the tradition that the printed Buddhist charms and paper slips of that period sometimes bore figures of divinities, though few, if any, of the surviving specimens can with certainty be dated back earlier than the year 1325. Even that date precedes by nearly a century the German block of St. Christopher. The earliest illustrated book at present known is the 1608 edition of a classical romance entitled Ise Mono-gatari,—a very crude production, to some copies of which a rough hand-colouring has been applied, not unlike that of the old English chap-books. But the father of really artistic xylography was Hishigawa Moronobu, who flourished between 1680 and 1701, and was the first to adopt that decorative use of masses of black which has lent such piquancy to the colour scheme of Japanese engravers since his time. And do not object, and tell us that this arbitrary prominence given to black in certain portions of the picture accords ill with nature. What came next, somewhere about 1710, from the first artists of the Torii School,—their broadsides in black and one tint, or black and two or three tints, without shadows, without perspective, of women with faces that neither Japan nor any other land has ever seen in real life,—these accord with nature equally little. But they display a tender harmony of colouring, a strength of touch, a power of composition, that elevate what at first strike a European as mere sketches to an ethereal form of art. When Hokusai and Hiroshige caught up the tradition, landscape was treated in an equally idealistic way. These colour-prints of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century—the work of the Toriis, the Katsugawas, the Utagawas, and other schools—stand alone and unrivalled, resembling nothing so much as certain beautiful butterflies of fantastic yet harmonious hue.
The old coloured broadsides (nishiki-e) were published, as their degenerate modern representatives still are, sometimes in single sheets, very often in sets of three sheets to a picture, rarely in more than three. The first coloured book (copied from a Chinese one dated 1701) seems to have been issued about 1748, and the xylographic art as a whole may be said to have reached its culminating point about 1765, under Suzuki Harunobu and Torii Kiyonaga. Soon fans and other paper articles began to be adorn ed with engravings either black or coloured. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century what were called Surimono came into fashion,—dainty little works of art to which our Christmas cards are the nearest equivalent. Those by Hokusai (1760-1849) and his pupil Hokkei are particularly esteemed.
As happens to all arts, time brought with it greater complexity and a more florid taste. Instead of the two or three blocks of an earlier day, as many as thirty were now often employed; and the colours, after 1830, grew gaudy. The introduction of cheap European pigments, the troubles that attended the opening of the country, and the influence of debased European specimens hastened the downfall of the art. Quite recently the broadsides of Gekkō and one or two other living artists have given hopes of revival, like those fine days which, in late autumn, sometimes make us think that summer is coming back.
The tools used by Japanese wood engravers and printers are few and simple. The picture, drawn upon thin translucent paper, is pasted faceupon a plank of wood, usually cherry or box wood—sawn in the direction of the grain instead of across it, as in Europe—and scraped till every detail of the design becomes visible. The thin remaining layer is then slightly oiled, and the work of engraving begins, the borders of the outline being incised first with a knife, and the spaces between the lines of the drawing excavated by means of chisels and gouges. The block is then washed and is ready for use. The printer applies the ink or colour with a brush, and the impressions are taken upon specially prepared paper by rubbing with a flat padded disc, worked by hand pressure. Certain gradations of tone, and even polychromatic effects may be produced from a single block, and uninked blocks are often used for the purpose of embossing portions of the design. The effect of printing from two or more blocks was obtained in some cases by preparing a single block with ink of different colours, or with different shades of the same colour. At other times a lighter tint was obtained by simply wiping portions of the block. In the ordinary colour-prints the effects are obtained by the use of a number of additional blocks engraved in series from copies of the impression taken from the first or outline block. Correctness of register is secured, simply but effectually, by means of a rectangular nick and guiding-line repeated at the corner and edge of each successive block.
The names of the following seven leaders in the development of Japanese wood engraving may be useful to collectors:—Hishigawa Moronobu (flourished 1680-1701), Torii Kiyonobu (1710—1730); Tachibana Morikuni (1670-1748); Nishigawa Sukenobu (1678-1750); Katsugawa Shunshō (1770-1790); Utagawa Toyokuni (1772-1828); Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Though it is a little aside from our subject, we may perhaps state here that Shiba Kōkan, an artist who flourished early in the nineteenth century, learnt from the Dutch a smattering of the principles of linear perspective, and is said to have introduced engraving on copper, in which, however, his countrymen have done little worthy of note. At the present day lithography and all the newest inventions in collotype, photogravure, etc., etc., etc., are availed of, and some slight reflex of the artistic spirit ani mating their forefathers in a more favoured age may be traced in the treatment, by such men as Ogawa, of these mechanical processes. See also Articles on Art and Printing.
Books recommended. Japanese Wood Engravings, by Wm. Anderson, published as No. 17 (May, 1895) of "The Portfolio," of which the preceding article is a partial précis. The Colour-Prints of Japan, by E. F. Strange. Japanese Wood Cutting and Woodcut Printing, by Tokunō and Koehler, published by the Smithsonian Institution.